Q & A Session with Industry Partner Benjamin Cockram of Plastrading.
Plastic & Chemical Trading started as a small operation trading in plastics and chemicals, run from home by Roger Cockram. Benjamin Cockram, his son, worked at the company part-time selling raw materials from the boot of his car. In 1996 KraussMaffei, the largest German manufacturers of moulding machines, were looking for an agent and Roger and Benjamin met with them as a prospective father-and-son team. German industry has a legacy of dynamic family businesses. This was exactly what they were looking for and Plastic & Chemical Trading became the sole agents of KraussMaffei in the region, with Benjamin joining his father in the company full time.
Q: How has the market, and the company, changed over the last 20 years?
A: In the beginning, I literally got in my car and went to see everyone in the moulding industry to find out if we could sell them machines. It was a massive learning curve. There were a lot of established players in the market. Everyone already had a working relationship with the established suppliers, so why would they need us?
Learning how to differentiate yourself and position yourself as being valuable to customer was a very long, very slow and very difficult process. To make ends meet we decided to diversify. We became involved in other businesses, like material feeding systems and so on, which was also very slow. Then we branched into the PET business and sold blow moulders and eventually preform injection moulding.
That led us into the bottling industry and from there we were approached by Heuft Systemtechnik, which became the other pillar on which the company is built. Working with Heuft Systemtechnik opened the door to us dealing with really big companies, where there is a very high requirement for efficiency and a high requirement for effective service.
Q: What sets your business apart from the competition?
A: We offer a tailored solution focused on the niche products we supply; everything we do is very much focused on the customers; on what they do and what their needs are. It requires a high level of expertise in the actual interaction with the customers.
We have to have very high-level technicians to support the equipment. They also need to be able to communicate what they are doing to a wide range of people, from the factory floor all the way up to management. They have to translate the complex machine to them.
Effectively, our technicians and our sales staff all have to have a very close relationship with the customer. We feel it is important that they take responsibility for the customer’s experience of working with us. This personal approach is part of why we partnered with KraussMaffei and still plays a large part in the company culture.
Q: Tell us more about the company culture?
A: We are a small company and we are close. We are very informal and have a flat structure. We believe in respect for each other and for the customer. We have to respect the customer and also their principles what they stand for. We have to respect the engineering that has gone into the products that we sell.
It starts between us. Management has to earn the respect from the technicians and the team, and vice versa.
Q: Where do you see yourselves in five years’ time?
A: That is a good question. We have learned some difficult lessons in the past and as a result we are not targeting growth as a priority. What we do is quite niche, quite specialised. Instead, we try to maximise what relationship we have with our customers and look at add more value in their operations.
We would rather grow our employees’ skills set than the company. We want to develop our own staff, their competence and their ability to be more. We want to maximise the customer’s performance. Once we become a technical partner to our customers, we’ve got to remain relevant. That is the growth.
Q: What are the market trends at the moment?
A: There is a trend towards automation. We are quite interested in that and aim to be at the forefront of it. We support our customers to go from semi-manual to automated processes. It’s one thing to stay on top of what is new and trending but we must be able to also implement them.
Q: How do you achieve this?
A: In everything we do we make sure our team have all the necessary tools – not just hardware tools, but also software and so on. This includes the knowhow and the back-up.
For example, if we get involved in a robotics system we want the designer of the robotic system and our team to understand each other. They need to understand what services and what support we can deliver and we need to understand what they can give us. That involves training – sending people overseas to the manufacturer to learn so that we are sure that we will be able to support the product.
Q: How do you keep your staff motivated under the pressure of being on top all the time?
A: The learning is a motivator in itself because there is a sense of growing. People are growing in their knowledge about what they are capable of. They are growing personally, which is a fundamental part of feeling motivated. We want our employees to know that they are on a growth path. We grow together.
Q: Do you have a lot of competitors in the market place?
A: Yes, we do. If you go back to our history when we were selling injection-moulding machines in South Africa, which is a small market even when we first started in the nineties, there were thirty or forty machine suppliers competing for the business. They were all offering moulding machines, so how do you differentiate between yourself and that environment? It is fundamental to be a competent technical partner to your client.
Q: What advice would you give to someone interested in starting a business similar to yours?
A: You need to know what value you can add. You need to be able to make sure that you can deliver on your service offering and make sure that you are paid for it.
Q: You mentioned that you don’t want to expand the business exponentially, is there any reason for that?
A: We don’t want to expand away from what we know. We know our business, we know its strength and we know what works. We don’t want to lose the fundamental principles that make our business successful and allow us to deliver on our service offering. We don’t simply want to expand for expansion sake. If we do land up expanding, we want it to be an organic process.